Mindful or Mindful?

Last week I welcomed Autumn by going for a pleasant walk in the woods on the equinox. It was wonderful and refreshing. I took my time, slowed down, noticed the little details around me, and couldn’t help but reflect on some cliché photography “best practice.”

I’ve been revisiting this topic recently, after writing an entry level curriculum for a mindful photographic workshop, and observing some forest bathing and yoga classes led by other professionals. While I know quite well how intimately the arts and mental wellbeing are tied, digging a little deeper I find mindfulness has a more complex relationship to photography.

One point that has been on my mind is how the mindfulness movement possibly clashes with the in-depth study of multiple mediums, as it champions an “in-the-moment” mindset. As an example, “capturing a moment” is a theme which has been paired with photography ever since the technology of cameras improved to make fast exposures. Many will know though that photography was not always this way, with the first cameras requiring long exposures of several hours to make an image.

In this respect, one image can be made up of many moments; so how “in the moment” is photography really, but more specifically does acknowledging this intricacy make my process more or less mindful? On one hand, it’s being aware of complex ideas surrounding my chosen medium, on the other it’s overly concerned with history, and how others approach their photographic practice, making it difficult to focus on the present moment.

I definitely agree that when out photographing, we should be thinking about what we’re doing, and not about unrelated things. This relaxed but focused state is precisely what I think mindfulness and the arts attempts to achieve for the casual art maker and art veteran alike, however, I do not propose we should pointedly choose not to learn more about the history and traditions of the medium we’re practicing. More crucially, we should not ignore the consequences (positive or negative) of the imagery we create.

So what else.... It’s clear that making mindful art isn’t necessarily about making what art world snobs would call “good” art, but about having a certain awareness when creating. Yet, the creation of “good” art is almost always a byproduct of approaching artistic practice in a similar way. It requires a knowledge set, exploring artistic practice, making mistakes, self reflection, and in the case of photography, creating photos.

Let’s reflect a little on the topic of making and how we could, make photos, and not take them. In English, the verb we commonly use for the act of photographing is “to take” or “taking.” Is awareness of the semantics that important? Well that decision is up to the individual, but while there are ways we can politely take things from others, there is definitely a dark side to photography too; and it’s very greedy by nature. It’s overtly obvious, but every image is something which has been created, and while I can’t speak for others, I want my creations to be positive acts no matter how little or mundane.

There is lots of hefty art theory out there about this topic of photography being inherently taking in nature and objectifying of subject matter, but as an easy starting point something we could all do is try to be more self aware when making photos. For example, we can ask ourselves what we gain by making a photo, and who made that image possible? It may be a specific person, like a model, or it could be someone more unknown to the photographer, like the rangers who maintain a favourite local wood where the photographer often photographs. To further, we can ask ourselves what we are able to give in return? This doesn’t have to be monetary support, it could be advocacy for an important topic, or volunteering time and skills to a cause, or the obvious- donating photos! This is another, more philanthropic, element of mindful art making which I feel is not necessarily touched upon enough. We tend to discuss how our art and ourself is related, but what about ourselves and the bigger picture? To me, I feel as if mindfulness also must encompass some form of self responsibility if we are truly attempting a better self awareness.

Lastly, the key skill for mindful photo making is observation. This ability is inherently strongly connected to learning most visual arts but also to our self reflection skills. It’s an exercise in exploration, and by observing we can’t help but view that which we notice in relation to ourselves; thereby becoming more mindful of how we fit into a larger context, whether that’s how our artwork relates to our mental health, or how it relates to a wider community of artists, or how it relates to society.

These are big intellectual leaps to make when maybe we just want to relax and use our cameras to make some pictures. Is it too detailed and bogged down in philosophical art theory to be included in current social trends? Or is this exactly the kind of deep reflection we should be tapping into when creating imagery and teaching visual literacy?

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